Mitt Romney is due to give a major speech on his economic plans tonight at the Americans For Prosperity’s Defending the American Dream Summit in Washington. He gave previews of it yesterday in New Hampshire and in an op-ed in today’s USA Today. The focus of his effort is cutting spending and debt, but the bottom line here is that unlike Herman Cain and Rick Perry, Romney doesn’t feel the need to float a plan that can be labeled radical or controversial. He proposes to reduce the share of GDP taken up by federal spending from 24.3 percent to 20 percent or lower. And he wants to do it with budget cuts that will not include reductions in spending on defense.
Though what he is proposing is clearly aimed at eliciting applause from Republican audiences, he is being careful not to stake out a position that might cause him trouble in a general election campaign. Which is to say though he talks about reforming Medicare and Social Security, he avoids specifics.
Most of Romney’s laundry list of budget cuts can be characterized as low-hanging fruit from a conservative perspective. There is the obligatory repeal of Obamacare as well as ending federal subsidies for the public broadcasting, the arts, the Legal Services Corporation, Planned Parenthood, Amtrak (take that Joe Biden!) and “foreign aid to countries that oppose America’s interests”–pretty much everybody except Israel.
There is also a good deal about cutting waste and corruption. That is standard fare for any budget speech by anyone from either party, but his calls for a reduction in the federal workforce and aligning compensation with private sector levels is a step in the reformist direction undertaken by Wisconsin Governor Scott Johnson and Romney supporter Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey.
As for Social Security and Medicare, Romney again sticks to safe ground. There is a huge gap between what Romney discusses and the kind of visionary reform put forward by Paul Ryan in his House GOP budget proposal. But, as with the rest of his plan, Romney is taking steps in Ryan’s direction while still seeking to avoid being labeled as extreme:
Medicare and Social Security are made sustainable for future generations. Reforms should not affect current seniors or those near retirement, and tax hikes should be off the table. However, the retirement age for younger workers should be increased slowly to keep up with increases in longevity. And Social Security benefits for higher income recipients should grow at a slower rate than for those with lower incomes.
Tomorrow’s Medicare should give beneficiaries a generous defined contribution and allow them to choose between private plans and traditional Medicare. And lower-income future retirees should receive the most assistance. I believe that competition will improve Medicare and the coverage that seniors receive.
Many Tea Partiers will call this a timid approach. But rather than carp about Romney’s gradualism, they would do better to realize that he — and the rest of the Republican Party — have come a long way toward their point of view. Though he may never win their love, Romney has adopted some of their rhetoric about debt without being tied down to a specific formula for Democrats to attack.
Even with a divided conservative field, the former Massachusetts governor has a tough fight ahead of him. Tea Partiers and social conservatives seem impervious to his charm. Romney’s goal here is to establish a plausibly conservative approach, but his eyes are still firmly fixed on next November, not the early primary states. That’s a play-it-safe strategy that is not without its perils but may be a smart move for a candidate who still thinks the nomination is his to lose.